25 Best Restaurants: 2012
From culinary heavyweights to neighborhood mainstays, these places keep us coming back.
Photography by Laura Petrilla
There are many reasons why our city is repeatedly included in the “Most Livable City” rankings. We have culture and sports, health care and education — but what we really love are restaurants! ’Burghers are becoming more and more sophisticated, hungry for interesting food choices. Throughout the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion of talented chefs, some of whom relocated to Pittsburgh with intentions of showing their stuff.
This was the year of the small (sometimes BYOB) neighborhood restaurant: Cure, Nicky’s Thai Kitchen, Park Bruges, Root 174 and Stagioni. In larger-scale news: Legume expanded in Oakland — plus, The Porch at Schenley opened nearby. Then there are old favorites like Umi, Dish Osteria and Bar, and Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar that deliver the goods year after year; especially distinguished in this category is the Hyeholde, celebrating its 75th anniversary (almost unheard of in the restaurant business), and (amazingly) owned by a descendent of the original owners and builders, still serving food that’s spot-on. We also look forward to the reopening of two formerly listed 25 Best Restaurants — notion and Bona Terra — in new locations this coming year.
It is with gratitude that we recognize these eateries and the hard-working, passionate people of our restaurant industry, who truly make our lives more satisfying. We salute you!
CURE / Charred ramps: ramp custard, garlic bread, aged balsamic, Taleggio lemon oil
In the midst of the bustle of city life, Avenue B is an oasis, serving inventive, satisfying dishes of upscale comfort food in a calm, handsome interior. Chef/owner Chris Bonfili uses his creative culinary talents to create a daily chalkboard menu, which supplements the printed seasonal menu and often features international accents on classic American dishes. Always worthwhile: the fresh, light seasonal salads and homemade soups; the wild-caught fish and chips with Napa slaw and malt aïoli; and the eatery’s signature Kobe meatloaf with goat cheese and chive whipped potatoes. Save room for dessert: Adam Bates and Kevin Olmstead whip up a mean White Blonde with pretzel crust, served with brule green apples — providing a nice balance of salt, sweet and tart. Within the last year, Avenue B added an option for drop-off catering services to sites in the East End — plus, Bonfili and his wife opened BGourmet, a market and eatery in Sewickley.
• Chef/Owner Chris Bonfili
• 5501 Center Ave., Shadyside
• 412/683-FOOD, avenueb-pgh.com
Exploring and expanding upon the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Casbah remains consistently fresh and interesting, year after year. Whether indoors — seated in the sophisticated yet cozy interior with amber lighting and tile and glassworks — or outside on the casual front patio, you are guaranteed excellent service and a fine meal that’s a perfect balance of rustic and refined. Special strengths are the cheese tastings, scallop appetizers, interesting pasta combinations, light and healthy preparations of fish, Elysian Fields lamb, and the very popular double-cut pork chop. More than 30 wines are available by the glass at Casbah’s chic bar, with special attention given to varieties from around the globe; the knowledgeable, friendly bar staffers are ready to help you choose the right one. Keep in mind that the restaurant’s also open for an amazing Sunday brunch.
• Executive Chef Eli Wahl
• 229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside
• 412/661-5656, bigburrito.com/casbah
New on the scene, Cure is the direct expression of chef/owner Justin Severino’s unusual background; he trained under some of California’s finest chefs and operated his own butchery shop. Not surprisingly, his small, hip neighborhood restaurant focuses on quality meats and local veggies cooked with a Mediterranean flair. The most prized dish is the Salumi, a refined platter of housemade delights: salami Toscano, lardo, duck speck, bresaola, coppa di testa, pork terrine, chicken rillettes and duck ciccioli. Other not-to-miss dishes include the braised lamb shank and the marvelous, refined cheese platter. Part of a new breed of chefs, Severino is dedicated to “supporting ethical farming practices, humane animal husbandry, sustainability and traditional cooking techniques.”
• Chef/Owner Justin Severino
• 5336 Butler St., Lawrenceville
• 412/252-2595, curepittsburgh.com
DINETTE / The pizza created at Dinette, such as the Sorrel (pictured), will force you to change your opinion of the popular staple.
Don’t let the word “pizza” fool you. Dinette makes magnificent pies that are worthy of any fine-dining restaurant. Chef/owner Sonja Finn was a semi-finalist for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef of the Year” award in 2009 and 2010. Her pizza features a thin, crispy crust with topping combinations that range from the classic basil, Mozzarella, tomato and fresh ricotta to the roasted Brussels sprouts with sage, red onion and fresh Mozzarella. The soups and salads are intensely flavorful, with a lovely contrast of flavors, colors and textures — such as the soft-baked egg served on arugula with grilled farm bread. Despite its urban setting, the restaurant has its own rooftop garden that provides tomatoes and herbs when in season. The interior is bright and clean, with shades of orange, white and aluminum. Dinette offers a pleasurable mix of casual and decadent.
• Chef/Owner Sonja Finn
• 5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty
• 412/362-0202, dinette-pgh.com
Housed in an historic saloon dating back to 1885, Dish has been a Pittsburgh favorite since it opened in 2000. Offering a warm and inviting atmosphere, the bar and the small dining room are always packed. The dinner menu boasts a Sicilian emphasis, with daily specials like the carpaccio with organic arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano, simply accented with lemon and extra-virgin olive oil. Or the classic fettucini with portobello, shiitake and cremini mushrooms, with spinach, garlic and olive oil. The perfect bistro food might be the grilled ribeye steak with sautéed spinach, pan-roasted Yukon gold potatoes, prosciutto and sage. Pair these dishes with a nice glass of Italian red wine and the sincere service, and you will leave Dish feeling satisfied and relaxed.
• Chef/Owner Michele Savoia
• 128 S. 17th St., South Side
• 412/390-2012, dishosteria.com
Eleven is a great spot for a business lunch, a special occasion or a relaxing meal with out-of-town guests; it offers superior food in a stylish environment, neither too formal nor too casual, but with a hip, sophisticated balance. Open for lunch, Sunday brunch and dinner, the menu changes regularly but always lists delightful options like raw oysters, beautifully prepared duck and lamb, and an assortment of fresh seafood (including salmon and black cod). The rich house-made desserts are among the best in the city, exhibiting nifty flavors and textures — for example, the chocolate-peanut-pretzel candy bar, a brownie with peanut brittle and milk-chocolate peanut-butter ice cream. Eleven also has a large bar and an extensive wine collection that serves various preferences and price points. Their monthly dinners offer more than just great fare; the events benefit local and national charities.
• Executive Chef Derek Stevens
• 1150 Smallman St., Strip District
• 412/201-5656, bigburrito.com/eleven
Celebrating its diamond jubilee this year (and still owned by the daughter of the original owners and builders!), Hyeholde is a destination for fine dining and special events, like the many picturesque weddings that have taken place within its glorious walls. The building was constructed in the 1930s to resemble a castle, set on four acres of gardens, lawns and stone paths. Inside, you can enjoy American food with a French influence, while taking pleasure in the crackling fire, large wooden beams, slate floors, stained-glass windows and tapestries. Start with the signature sherry bisque soup — then follow it with something special, like New Zealand elk with mushroom bread pudding and heirloom beets in a bordelaise sauce or the pan-seared trout with fingerling potatoes, capers, tomatoes and olive oil. Chef’s table, Hye tea and picnic menus are available at certain times. Look for a series of anniversary events in October to commemorate the restaurant’s 75th year in business.
• Executive Chef Jim Brinkman
• 1516 Coraopolis Heights Road, Moon Township
• 412/264-3116, hyeholde.com
LEGENDS OF THE NORTH SHORE / Hot antipasto with grilled artichokes
Chef/owner Joseph Tambellini extends his hospitality by strolling through his restaurant and greeting guests. His restaurant is the place to visit when you want an excellent, traditional Italian meal in an elegant atmosphere. Serving “refined classical cuisine,” Tambellini’s creations are intensely flavorful, abundant in garlic, onions, lemon and olive oil. Traditional appetizers include calamari, escarole and white beans with sausage, and stuffed banana peppers. Pasta is fresh — even the seemingly simple marinara sauce is delicious. For entrées, enjoy tender, gently cooked veal or seafood “Melissa” (named for the chef’s wife and co-owner), comprising a combination of fish, scallops and crab-stuffed shrimp. Don’t forget to try the homemade tiramisu or butterscotch poundcake, two old-fashioned desserts that don’t disappoint. This restaurant is welcoming to patrons of all ages — and a really great place to enjoy an upscale yet quiet night out.
• Chef/Owner Joseph Tambellini
• 5701 Bryant St., Highland Park
• 412/665-9000, josephtambellini.com
Kaya is a fun destination for festive tropical drinks and enticing Caribbean-influenced food. Owing in part to a funky interior with fringed stools, colorful lighting and vibrant contemporary art, this restaurant has a hopping bar scene, complete with a can’t-miss Happy Hour (Monday through Friday, 5-7 p.m.). Dishes reflect many well-interpreted influences, resulting in food that you just can’t get elsewhere; for example, the Jerked Pulled-Pork Quesadilla includes such ingredients as spicy slaw, chihuahua cheese and cucumber aïoli, combining for a great balance of flavors and textures. For appetizers, tantalizing choices abound: conch fritters, tuna tartare, mussels with sausage, tofu cracklins — heck, even the housemade Kaya chips with mango-tomatillo salsa will impress.
• Executive Chef Jason Watts
• 2000 Smallman St., Strip District
• 412/261-6565, bigburrito.com/kaya
Located within Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Lautrec is nothing if not magnificent. Winner of the Forbes Travel Guide Five Star Award and AAA Five Diamond Award in 2012, Lautrec offers superb food and exceptional service in a rich crimson environment. The beautiful basket of housemade breads served with two different artisanal butters, each topped with a special salt, give you a sense of the attention to detail that earns this restaurant its accolades. Starting with the champagne cart and finishing with the offering of mignardises sweets, a sense of luxury and refinement is in the air. The dinner menu is a prix-fixe format, in which you can create your own four-course menu or try the nine-course chef’s tasting menu with optional wine pairings. The sommelier is knowledgeable and helpful, without being intimidating. Hats off to Chef Butterworth for continuing Lautrec’s tradition of excellence, bringing national attention to our regional dining scene.
• Chef de Cuisine Kristin Butterworth
• 1001 Lafayette Drive, Farmington
• 724/329-8555, nemacolin.com
Located less than a block from Allegheny General Hospital, Legends of the North Shore is positively homey, with a down-to-earth staff that seems genuinely glad to see you. Legends’ interior is small, with a tiny open kitchen — so it always feels busy, and the food, much like the staff, is homespun. Start with warm house-made focaccia and yummy dipping oil. Then order the soup of the day — which is really like Mom’s (well, if you’re lucky enough to have a Mom who makes soup from scratch) — or the polenta appetizer with sweet sausage, roasted red peppers and pesto drizzle. Various pasta, chicken, eggplant and pork dishes are available; one standout is the Spots Romano with lemon, parsley and butter. Legends is a neighborhood Italian restaurant that’s a cut above.
• Chef/Owner Dan Bartow
• 500 E. North Ave., North Side
• 412/321-8000, legendsatthenorthshore.com
LEGUME / Flat-iron steak and red wine sauce with barley-mushroom risotto and carrot puree
Make sure you make a reservation before heading over to Legume, since the dining public has passionately embraced the restaurant’s latest incarnation in Oakland. Maintaining the farm-to-table ethos on a larger scale, chef/co-owner Trevett Hooper offers dishes from the simple to the imaginative by using high-quality ingredients cooked to perfection. A nice emphasis on meats, grains and vegetables also makes Legume a great choice for health-conscious eaters and vegetarians. The daily menu starts with “Nice Things to Share,” like pâté, and ends with to-die-for desserts like the chocolate truffle cake. The “Chicken Cooked Under a Skillet” is among the best in Pittsburgh. The beautifully lit, full-service bar often offers live music Tuesday evenings. This is not one to miss.
• Chef/CO-Owner Trevett Hooper
• 214 N. Craig St., Oakland
• 412/621-2700, legumebistro.com
This local gastropub touts itself as one that offers “simple and approachable food.” While some fare, like the ribeye for two with confit steak fries and the chicken pot pie, are very straightforward, others are naturally a little more refined — like the wild mushroom risotto with truffles or the homemade duck-liver pâté with sauternes jelly and grilled bread. Chef/owner Richard DeShantz’s interesting background (fine-dining chef, baker and artist) is evident throughout, as the menu is imbued with elegant accents, the restaurant makes all its bread and buns in-house, and the interior is stylized and well-designed. The mood at Meat & Potatoes is similar to that of a dark speakeasy — a place to argue politics, laugh out loud and indulge in decadent offerings. And do not miss the much-talked-about barrel-aged Manhattan, which matures for two months to give the drink wonderful smoky oak accents.
• Chef/Owner Richard Deshantz
• 649 Penn Ave., Downtown
• 412/325-7007, meatandpotatoespgh.com
Nicky’s Thai Kitchen was once North Siders’ best-kept secret — but, as expected, the word has gotten out, and Nicky’s has become a destination for people around the city who are looking for fresh Thai cuisine. The food is bright and colorful with clean, fresh flavors and spice levels to your liking. Highly recommended are the fresh spring rolls and the rich, crispy crab Rangoon wontons. Also available are a wide variety of curries, rice and noodle dishes. The divine panang curry comes with your choice of meat, lime leaves, broccoli and coconut milk. Chef’s specials include basil fish with tilapia fillets and the “chicken black,” garlicky chicken with shiitake mushrooms and ginger in a homemade brown sauce. Thai-iced coffee and tea are always refreshing. During the warmer months, you can sit outside with a glass of iced tea at the beautiful green, plant-filled rear patio accented with Thai artwork.
• Owner Ratthasak Insawang
• 856 Western Ave., North Side
• 412/321-THAI, nickysthaikitchen.com
Nine on Nine, a favorite for pre-theater dining, offers sophisticated cuisine in a refined, tasteful setting. The food is artful, and the atmosphere and service are dignified. Favorites include the lobster mac-n-cheese, the mushroom and truffle risotto, and the roasted chicken breast with sweet potato and confit hash. It’s also an excellent choice for a business lunch or high-end Happy Hour, where you might take a date for a martini or a glass of wine. Try the three-course pre-theater tasting menu (5-6 p.m.), or treat yourself to the eight-course chef’s tasting menu ($89), a leisurely stroll through delectable culinary pleasures.
• Executive Chef Daniel Carlton
• 900 Penn Ave., downtown
• 412/338-6463, nineonninepgh.com
Park Bruges is the French-influenced sister establishment of beloved Belgian-inspired Point Brugge Café in Point Breeze. Serving a variety of fare and European beers in a clean, simple environment, Park Bruges is a neighborhood bistro that offers lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Must-haves include the affordable yet luxurious pound of Prince Edward Island mussels ($12), steamed in your choice of sauce (classic white wine, shallot and herbed butter; spicy Creole with sausage and crumbled maytag blue; and green curry, fresh cilantro and basil) served with crusty bread to mop up the broth. Unique to Park Bruges is Montreal’s decadent poutine, twice-cooked fries topped with local cheese curds and gravy. For healthy eaters, Park Bruges creates large, bountiful salads. At brunch, there is normally a crowd waiting outside, ready to try some of the appetizing dishes — such as Liege waffles, croque madams, eggs benedict, frittatas and a generous prix-fixe brunch that includes an entrée, side dish and brunch beverage (Mimosa, Bloody Mary or Prosecco).
• Executive Chef Kevin Hunninen
• 5801 Bryant St., Highland Park
• 412/661-3334, parkbruges.com
Penn Avenue Fish was an excellent retailer of fish, with a casual lunch service, in the Strip District before it opened its downtown restaurant. As a result, the newer establishment’s menu offers a wide variety of fresh seafood served in various forms: sushi, sashimi, sandwiches, tacos, pizzas, wraps, soup or simply grilled. Knowing that, it comes as no surprise that all seafood lovers can find something appealing (and delectable) here. The restaurant is long and narrow with exposed brick and lime accents, making it a snappy place for a quick business lunch or a casual place to grab dinner. The menu prices are very reasonable when considering the quality of the product. Penn Avenue Fish Co. also offers great catering options with abundant trays of seafood and non-seafood treats.
• Co-owners Angela Earley and Henry Dewey
• 308 Forbes Ave., downtown
• 412/562-1710, pennavefishcompany.com
ROOT 174 / Chef Keith Fuller’s attention to detail and creativity shine through in all of Root 174’s dishes, even the simplest ones.
Root 174 is one of the city’s most interesting new restaurants, upping the draw of rising star-neighborhood Regent Square. Chef/owner Keith Fuller and his staff describe their offerings as “cultivated comfort food,” which translates into grub you might know — take carbonara, for example, prepared with fun, contemporary twists (like using gnocchi for the pasta and beef tongue as an accent). The menu changes often and always includes unexpected flavor combinations. Golden beet soup with maple croutons? Bone-marrow crème brulee with apple gremolata? This restaurant is a fabulous choice for the adventurous diner who’s willing to take a chance on chef Fuller’s creative expressions. Typically frequented by a younger, edgier crowd, Root 174 offers real vegetarian and vegan dishes and desserts, which definitely hold their own among the other offerings.
• Chef Keith Fuller
• 1113 South Braddock Ave., Regent Square
• 412/243-4348, root174.com
This place continues to be one of the most-talked-about restaurants in Pittsburgh; the fact that Salt of the Earth received our 2011 Best New Restaurant, Chef of the Year and Delicious Design awards is clear evidence. Providing an exceptional dining experience without the pretense and cost of fine dining, chef/owner Kevin Sousa has become something of a celebrity in Pittsburgh. His restaurant’s sleek gray and pale-green environment offers communal tables on the first floor and a quieter mezzanine (by reservation only); you can also sit at the kitchen’s bar and watch the chefs at work. Salt’s small but complete chalkboard menu changes often, with each dish thoughtfully planned and crafted. Sousa is famous for playing with textures and flavors in edgy ways; it’s the challenging nature of his culinary creations that deters few and inspires many to flock to Salt. Some of the dishes are truly brilliant, and the cocktail menu is superb (thanks to two of Sousa’s accomplished drink-slingers, Maggie Meskey and Summer Voelker). Also, be sure to check out his two latest ventures: Union Pig & Chicken (unionpgh.com) and Station Street Hot Dogs (stationstreetpgh.com), both in the East End.
• Chef/Owner Kevin Sousa
• 5523 Penn Ave., Garfield
• 412/441-7258, saltpgh.com
A Pittsburgh favorite for more than 10 years, Soba has maintained its status as a hot spot for its cool scene, full-service bar and interesting, well-prepared food. The interior is inspired by a Zen garden, with soothing silent water running down a slate wall. The cuisine is truly Pan-Asian, including references to China, Thailand and Japan. Of the offerings, the small dishes and appetizers are definitely most popular. Fabulous options include the crispy tofu, mussels with Thai sausage, Thai corn chowder with generous jumbo lump crabmeat and the miso black cod. Fun desserts feature an Asian twist. The bar is maintained by pros; thus, drinks are always worthwhile.
• Executive Chef Danielle Cain
• 5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
• 412/362-5656, bigburrito.com/soba
SPOON / Day boat scallops and grilled prawns: spring risotto, local ramps, fava beans, asparagus and lemon buerre blanc
Winner of our Chef of the Year honor, Brian Pekarcik’s menu at Spoon is an interesting reflection of his California cooking experience mixed with his western Pennsylvania roots. The list of dishes changes often, responding to seasonal products, such as specialty mushrooms and ramps. Although some dishes are decadent, like the “bacon and eggs” appetizer with crispy pork belly, there’s always a sense of freshness to the food at Spoon. Entrées often feature an ingredient in more than one preparation method (such as the duo of lamb, veal two ways and chicken two ways), showcasing Spoon’s finesse with meats. The seafood, too, is always a solid option. Most dishes are plated with a number of accents and colorful oils, making them decorative and fanciful. Desserts continue in the same spirit, featuring fresh flavors like lemon and berries — actually, the sweets are so sublime that New York Magazine’s food blog Grub Street’s called attention to one in its list of “101 Most Crazy-Awesome Desserts.” The dessert of choice was the Spoon Bar, comprising Bailey’s Irish Cream coco bar, chocolate cake, cheesecake and milk chocolate “nougat” semifreddo atop semisweet chocolate pudding.
• Executive Chef Brian Pekarcik
• 134 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty
• 412/362-6001, spoonpgh.com
Stagioni started out as a tiny neighborhood restaurant in Bloomfield, offering perfect homemade Italian food. Earlier this year, Stagioni’s team took a big step up by moving into the South Side spot formerly occupied by Le Pommier; the restaurant now has a space that’s more worthy of its cuisine. Stagioni’s fans will wax rhapsodic about the made-to-order Mozzarella, served with a drizzle of balsamic reduction, and the marvelous homemade pastas and gnocchi. Here, the cuisine is simple but comprises all the right ingredients: prosciutto, sage, rapini and fig balsamic. It’s sophisticated Italian food that’s not the least bit snobby. The small menu changes daily, normally reflecting seasonal ingredients.
• Chef/Co-Owner Stephen Felder
• 2104 East Carson St., South Side
• 412-586-4738, stagionipgh.com
In Argentina, the word “tamari” means “to do everything with passion.” Tamari is a restaurant that is passionate about making its food and atmosphere exciting and engaging. Having an open kitchen with sushi bar, full liquor bar and seating on two levels, Tamari is always a hopping scene. The food boldly brings together flavors from Asian and Latin cuisines, such as the lobster tempura maki with avocado, cucumber with sriracha (hot chili) aïoli or the lamb lollipop (skewered lamb with wild mushrooms, sweet potato-jalapeno croquette, mint yuzu and radish). This restaurant is exciting for your eyes and your palate. The sleek, urbane environment features dramatically lit stainless steel and black surfaces — and is the perfect place to show off your hippest look. Tamari’s success resulted in the opening of a second location in Warrendale earlier this year.
• Executive Chef Roger Li
• 3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville
• 412/325-3435, tamaripgh.com
Toast! manages to be high-end and low-key at the same time in a comfortably dark environment. A favorite feature is the wine pours (available in 2-, 4- and 8-ounce servings), allowing you to taste a variety of wines and/or make your own pairings. The friendliness of the bartenders is well-known. While there are some very rich choices on the menu, portions are controlled, making it a place where you can treat yourself without feeling too guilty. Always tasty are the shrimp and grits with habanero cheddar. Among entrées, the Gerber’s farm chicken and the wild striped bass are nice options — actually, though, there aren’t any bad meals here, since the food quality remains consistent from dish to dish. Can’t get enough? Stop in for the Toast! Tasting Tuesday, featuring a four-course chef’s menu with optional wine pairing.
• Owners Chef Chet Garland and Wine Director Paul Tebbets
• 5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside
• 412/224-2579, toastpittsburgh.com
Mr. Shu is a Pittsburgh celebrity, a quiet presence with the magical ability to produce sushi and sashimi of sublime delicacy — plus, sauces that are intriguingly complex. With fish flown in daily from around the world, Umi is the place you can take your visiting New York sushi snob and be proud. The go-to option is the Omakase, wherein Mr. Shu creates a series of dishes to please your palate; choose a minimum of seven courses and get ready to go to the moon (per the menu, just “trust Mr. Shu”). If you don’t choose the Omakase, opt for maki, sushi or sashimi, starring wonderful fish like red snapper and yellowtail. Among hot dishes, the black cod with miso is sublime, featuring a tender piece of fish in a tangy, slightly sweet sauce. The restrained environment features interior paintings by local artist Lauri Mancuso that pay homage to Japanese artists. Indecisive diners will have to choose from one of three seating options: the very small sushi bar, where you can watch the master prepare foods; regular tables; and low tables, where you sit on the floor and eat. The servers are extremely capable, with excellent advice and thorough knowledge of the food.
• Executive Chef Mr. Shu
• 5849 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
• 412/362-6198, bigburrito.com/umi
• $$$$ (Omakase starts at $85 per person)